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To win hearts and mind, we must have a heart and mind

By Malinda Seneviratne

(October 01, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Sri Lanka had a problem that no one thought it could handle. Terrorism. The problem was so monumental that many said ‘sue for peace’, meaning ‘surrender’. Sri Lanka fought the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit to a finish. Sri Lanka suffered a terrible tragedy in the form of a tsunami but came away unbowed.

Sri Lanka suffered two bloody insurrections but still managed to sustain its democratic structures (imperfect though they may be). No, we didn’t do it alone. We had help from numerous friends who by and large neutralized the spanner-in-the-wheels efforts of our detractors. The hard part, the sacrifice, the suffering, however, was all ‘Sri Lankan’.

A lesser nation may very well have slipped into anarchy or warlordism. We did not. We are a ‘yes we can’ nation, whichever way we look at it.

Such a nation, one would expect, has what it takes to handle what is clearly a ‘smaller’ problem, that of rehabilitating 10,000 ex-combatants. One may argue that it is easier to kill than to rehabilitate, but then again the nature of threat in the two situations (conflict and post-conflict) is vastly different we need to remember. The number certainly looks forbidding, but given that there is no lack of support, financial and otherwise, from various sources, the availability of will and the existence of what I believe is a national trait that in the final instance prefers embrace to punch-up, there is no reason to be overly pessimistic.

So, I was surprised when I read somewhere that the Government was planning to seek the support of the USA in efforts to formulate procedures to cope with the suspects currently in custody. I was even more surprised to read that there was intention to study how the US handled terrorist suspects, particularly the thousands of suspected al-Qaeda operatives after 9/11. First, the USA doesn’t seem to have a civilized handle on handling anything, and certainly not individuals who are not white and who are not Christians. Second, we don’t have to go to the other end of the world to obtain methodology. We have it all here.

I remember visiting the Welikanda Army Camp in January this year. There were around 60 (perhaps more, I didn’t count) LTTE surrendees at that camp, undergoing rehabilitation. One of the officers in charge of the process said, ‘they may say that they were forcibly conscripted or joined the LTTE for some innocent reason but we find it is better to assume that they joined out of conviction’. I understood the logic but thought that perhaps a little bit more understanding wouldn’t harm.

Later I found how hard these officers were trying to ensure that the surrendees acquire useful skills that would someday allow them to be gainfully employed and resume life as useful citizens. I am aware that they’ve gone out of their way to secure the assistance of individuals and organizations to complement their work. In their interactions with the surrendees, which I observed, there was not a hint of anger or suspicion.

I realized in that admittedly small window into the matter of rehabilitation that two principles were at work. Heart and mind. This is what the Buddha advocated in all human engagement: compassion and reason. If enlightenment or even the lesser day-to-day objectives of civilized living devoid of anxiety could be obtained through compassion alone, the Buddha would not have dwelled on the importance of honing the mental faculties. There are not disparate entities of course, but I believe that both heart and mind have to be employed in handling these processes.

Compassion would not have downed the LTTE because the leadership of that organization was beyond heart-reach. Perhaps a Buddha may have been able to succeed with compassion alone, as in the case of the Alavaka Damanaya, but not a political or military leadership. A balance had to be struck and I am convinced that this did happen. If not, the Security Forces would not have lost so many troops. If not, we would not have had the IDP issue that we have to contend with today. As in the case of IDPs, the situation of dealing with LTTE surrendees requires circumspection. The security threat needs to be recognized. It must be understood that three decades of war, replete with anger, revenge-sentiments and minds conditions to disregarding moral considerations in the matter of dispensing death and destruction, requires everyone concerned to err on the side of caution.

Still, even as the most stringent security measures are put in place, even as comprehensive screening is implemented, everyone concerned would do well to recognize that the LTTE-suspect is a human being, endowed with the will to live and fear of death. Just like any one of us. They too have or had mothers and fathers. They may have brothers and sisters. They may have children, wives, lovers and probably have friends. They too dream. They too view future with hope as well as trepidation. They too are citizens, let us not forget. Who knows, tomorrow, some of them pay prove that they are far more useful to society than some of those who believe that for the crime of being a member of a terrorist outfit they should be shot dead forthwith.

True, the surrendees have a role to play, but I believe that all of us have a role too; to support them in regaining the right of full citizenship and the potential to build lives around less violent and destructive dreams.

It is reported that the Government is exploring the possibility of setting up a special tribunal to try LTTE suspects and that they would be treated as per three categories: those to be indicted for grave crimes, those who require rehabilitation and those who are to be released on supervisory bail. This was the procedure adopted in the case of JVP suspects after the 1971 insurrection. Some of those detainees spent six years in jail, some less. Many went on to live decent and fruitful lives.

These individuals must have a different tomorrow and all of us should understand that our tomorrow can depend to a certain degree on the kind of tomorrow that they finally inhabit.

The reservoirs of reason and compassion have not dried in this country. This is why we are such a resilient nation, a resilient people.

We don’t have to ask anyone. All we need to do is to look to who we are, where we have come from and what has sustained us through centuries of violence inflicted upon us by numerous foreign forces and of course tyrannies that were quite ‘home-grown’.

Winning hearts and minds is not easy. It requires hard work. And, all things considered, it requires us to have heart, have mind and employ these judiciously. I am hopeful.
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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